Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Backpacking do's and don'ts

I've just returned from a three-day backpack. Here are some things I learned:

Check and test everything before your trip. Everything. 

Fill up your backpack with gear and go for a practice hike, even if it's not a long one. Is there anything on the pack that's broken or missing?  Fasteners rattling or loose? Can you adjust the straps to fit your body? You should do this even if you've used the pack successfully in the past. Once you're out on the trail, you'll be limited in the kind of repairs you can do.

Try out your boots, even if you've worn them before with no problem. A blister will seriously impact your hiking. Try your boots with the socks you will actually be wearing on the hike. Make sure they have good shoelaces to make the boots snug on your feet. Go for a practice hike (possibly the same one with the backpack, above).

Try all the food you're taking ahead of time. You don't want to wait until you're on the trail to discover that the freeze-dried meal you're counting on for dinner one night tastes terrible. And you'll wonder why you carried food that you're not going to eat.

In freeze-dried meals, Mountain House Rice and Chicken is a winner. Mountain House Mac and Cheese is not.

Consider a Knorr pouch meal (or similar store-brand offering). These are not strictly freeze-dried meals. But they are much cheaper and can work. First, save the pouch from a freeze-dried meal. It's designed to retain heat. Place the Knorr meal inside and add water. Seal it up and it should cook like a freeze-dried meal. Still -- see above! -- try it ahead of time.

Unless you're sure you're going to have a lot of downtime, don't bring a book, not even a light one. Your time will be taken up hiking, cooking, cleaning, setting up gear, and conversing with your backpacking buddies.

Keep lunch simple. You won't want to stop to eat anything that requires much work while you're on the trail. One good idea: Put a couple Clif Bars in your pocket and nibble on them during the day.

Test your stove ahead of time. Bring a lighter or matches; test them first.

Double-check the trip plan. You may not be the leader of your group, but it's in your interest to make sure the details have been thought through.  Is the distance of each day's hike reasonable for your group's fitness level? Do you have required permits in-hand? If you don't, do you know exactly how you're going to get them?  Do you know exactly what you're doing on the nights immediately before and after the backpack? If your group is not traveling together, how and when will you all meet up?


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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book review: "Frozen in Time" by Mitchell Zuckoff

At the outset of World War II, the United States rushed to send airplanes to England to help in the fight. With long-distance flying still limited, the planes hopscotched from New England to Newfoundland to Greenland to Iceland  before finally touching down in Britain. But not all of them made it.

Greenland's fierce winds and blinding snowstorms were a particular obstacle. In "Frozen in Time," author Mitchell Zuckoff tells an amazing story from 1942-43 when one military plane went down, followed by the crashes of two rescue planes (there was even a related fourth crash, but Zuckoff doesn't spend much time on it.)

The series of events leaves two planes of dead men on the ice of Greenland, while a shattered third plane barely shelters nine survivors from the freezing temperatures.

Those survivors, and the efforts to rescue them, are the primary focus of a story that takes an amazing number of twists and turns. Just when you thought nothing more could go wrong, it does. Severe cold, tremendous winds, hunger, and the perils of deep crevasses in the ice are just some of the perils that both the survivors and rescuers must overcome.

Zuckoff weaves the rescue together with a modern-day story of attempts to find the remnants of one of the crashed planes and return the remains of the perished men to the United States. At first I wasn't sure this would work, but Zuckoff does a deft job of blending the stories together.

Zuckoff has conducted thorough research and the details he found bring the story alive. My one concern in the storytelling is that while he captures the hardiness and resilience of the men, I wonder if he glosses over moments of conflict. The only hint of disagreement among the survivors he offers is when one ignores his companions and goes off to sleep away from them. Surely, during their long ordeal, the men must have had an occasional squabble?

This is a book with a lot of characters and I liked the way Zuckoff introduces the stories of the plane crash survivors and rescuers one at a time as they enter the narrative. That gives you a chance to get to know one character before moving on to the next.

But oddly, when Zuckoff describes the modern-day story, he fails to follow the model he used for the World War II story. He tries to describes all the modern characters up front, and it's hard to keep them straight.

I liked that the book puts the pictures at the appropriate places in the book. This is much more useful to the reader than cramming them all into the middle of the book.

With so many characters, Zuckoff helpfully includes thumbnail biographies of each at the back of the book. Unfortunately, he doesn't tip off the reader that the bios are there and I didn't find them until I was done with the book. Now, at least you know they're there. You might find them useful for reference


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Friday, August 4, 2017

Dare to rent a Dollar car

Can you stand the pressure?

Can you stand the pressure to rent a car?

For a recent trip, I reserved a vehicle through Dollar Rental Car at the airport in Calgary, Alberta.

About a week before the trip, I was curious whether Dollar's rental lot was at the airport, or off-site, requiring a shuttle. So I did a Google search for Dollar rental Calgary. My research took a surprising turn.

Rather than an answer to my question, I instead found reviews of the Dollar operation at the Calgary Airport. And they were NOT pretty.

Most of the reviews were one- and two-stars, with many people complaining that Dollar personnel talked them into buying unnecessary and expensive add-ons to their car rental, especially accident and damage protection. For instance:

  • "The agent told me and wife that my US insurance only cover the Camry I own, now I was renting a mini van so I should buy the full coverage for $35 plus tax and fees per day which is 30% more than I expected."
  • "Then informed us that that we needed the insurance despite paying with my RBV Avion Platinum VISA which I know has coverage. She adamantly insisted that 'absolutely NO credit cards cover luxury cars.'  Pressured me that if an accident occurred I would be fully responsible for everything."

As I read the reviews, I didn't have much sympathy for these people. I have rented many cars and have routinely turned down the "Collision Damage Waiver" and other upgrades at rental counters simply by saying "no." If these renters got talked into something, well, I figured, it's their own fault.

Very few people actually need to buy "insurance" for car rentals. (The collision damage waiver is not actually insurance, though many people call it that. It's an agreement by the rental car company not to sue you for vehicle damage.)  Most personal car insurance policies cover you when renting a car, though you should check to be sure.

Also, most credit cards offer rental car insurance as one of their perks. With the combination of personal car insurance and credit card coverage, it's likely you are covered better when renting a car than driving your own car.

Still, the reviews of Calgary's Dollar operation did get me wondering. Since I live in the U.S., I checked with my car insurance company (Geico) to make sure my policy applied in Canada. It did. The same was true of my credit card coverage. It was all good; I was covered.

Arriving at the Dollar counter in Calgary, I was curious whether I would see evidence of the pressure-selling that I had read about online. It didn't take long.

As I stepped to the counter, I noticed a Dollar agent talking to a customer to my left. She said, "Now, do you want the full insurance or just the basic coverage?" Notice that she left out a third option: No coverage. I also liked the "just the basic" touch, as if that would be a really weak choice.

I didn't hear what option the customer chose, but he was startled by the price: $30 a day. "Why is it so high?!" he asked, almost in a panic.

I had an urge to reach out and help this guy, but soon I dealing with my own agent, handing over my credit card and driver's license and answering various questions.

Finally, she got to the question I knew was coming.

"About the insurance -- do you want the full, bumper-to-bumper coverage, or ..."

I interrupted. "We don't need anything extra."

She looked shocked. "You don't want any insurance?"


"You will be responsible for the full value of the vehicle," she said, her tone of voice implying that this would be a horrible mistake. 

"I know."

"Do you have insurance that covers you in Canada?"


"Are you sure?"


She acted as if she had never seen this before. Someone didn't want the insurance!

Glumly, she went ahead with the paperwork, making sure to emphasize that I had to initial on the contract that I was taking FULL responsibility in case of damage.  There was even a separate line to initial saying that any windshield damage would be my responsibility.

It wasn't just the insurance. She asked if I wanted to list a second driver on the policy. I said no, knowing that Dollar charges extra for an additional driver. She seemed skeptical, perhaps because my wife was standing right there. She had me initial one line on the contract, emphasizing that I would be the only driver "no matter what."  (No matter what? I'm thinking that if I'm having a heart attack, I'm going to let my wife drive.)

Eventually we got our keys and went. But the whole experience left me rattled. Even as sure as I was about my choices, the agent's pressure almost made me crack. I suddenly had more sympathy for those people who had criticized Dollar online.

I was so concerned about Dollar looking for ways to add extra charges that, before returning the car, I did something I've never done before. I videoed the entire car so I would have evidence of its condition. I feared that Dollar was going to find some tiny scratch or ding and blame it on me.

As it turned out, there was no problem when I returned the car. We were checked in and let go. The final bill was what I expected. 

I can't say, of course, if all Dollar counters are like the one at Calgary. But the lesson is the same. Be wary of all extra charges, and check your coverage from your insurance company and your credit card before you set out on your trip. .


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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book review: "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu"

First, let's acknowledge that "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu" is an outstanding book title. There's the unlikely combination of "Bad-Ass" and "Librarians" and then the staccato phonetics of "Timbuktu."  Love it.

In this book, author Joshua Hammer takes us to northern Mali, a part of the world probably few of us know much about. The center of the action is the city of Timbuktu, a dusty brown locale where most of the buildings are made of mud.

Hammer explains that Timbuktu has a surprisingly rich cultural history. As a trading post on the Niger River where people of various classes have crossed paths over the centuries, Timbuktu has come to be a repository of unique manuscripts.  The city holds thousands of one-of-a-kind books from centuries past, many of them painstakingly written by hand, and holding much of the area's history and culture.

Unfortunately, Timbuktu has also been overrun repeatedly by warring factions, often with religious pretexts, and through the centuries the citizens there have taken elaborate measure to hide the manuscripts to keep them safe. People buried the books or hide them behind fake walls to keep them from being destroyed by Timbuktu's latest overlords.

"The city seemed to be in a constant state of flux, periods of openness and liberalism followed by waves of intolerance and repression," Hammer writes.

Hammer describes the hard work of Abdel Kader Haidara who over decades gathered together the manuscripts of Timbuktu into a central library. Then, as extreme Islamic groups associated with Al Qaeda took over the city in 2012, Hadara and his colleagues undertook a massive operation to sneak 377,000 volumes out of the city by truck and by boat.

Before the operation was complete, the extremists found and burned 4,200 of the manuscripts. Still, the vast majority were saved.

"Timbuktu had been the incubator for the richness of Islam, and Islam in its perverted form had attempted to destroy it," Hammer writes. "But the original power of the culture itself, and the people like Haidara who had become entranced by that power, had saved the great manuscripts in the end."

Hammer ably assembles the history of Timbuktu and carefully describes the rise of extremist Islamic groups in the region, but the book is rather dry. Even in dramatic portions, with danger looming over the characters, I didn't find it particularly compelling.  Be prepared to skim ahead.

I was also disappointed that there are no pictures in the book. I found myself going online to see images to help me envision the people and places in the book.

There is another new book about this episode called "The Storied City" by Charles English. I haven't read it, so can't comment on it.


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